Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: ODY-C, Volume One by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

Cover of Ody-C, featuring a burst of yellow rimmed in hot pink and surrounded by a backdrop of dark blue, green, and orange.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

ODY-C [Amazon | The Book Depository | comiXology] is Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s reimagining of THE ODYSSEY—in space, with a predominantly female cast of characters. Odyssia, trickster-general, has spent a hundred years waging war against Troiia-VII and is now anxious to return home to her wife and child; however, her actions have drawn unfavourable attention. Zeus would be just as happy if Odyssia never made it home, so she erects barrier after barrier in the hero’s path.

It's your standard Odyssey setup. A war’s end; a hero on her way home; a slew of problems that lengthen her journey and threaten her life. What makes ODY-C different from every other Odyssey retelling you’ve ever read is its blend of science fiction with divine magic, and its strong focus on women. In this universe, Zeus eradicates manhood, certain sons cannot help but rise against their fathers as she rose against hers. She expects this to be the end of all non-godly people1, but women respond by engineering a third sex, the sebex, which can incubate ovum and thus bear children without masculine input.

This pisses Zeus off, but she can’t actually do anything about it because her decree only banned men and a sebex is not a man. Awkward.

And that’s where we’re at when ODY-C begins. The universe is full of women. Zeus is angry. Odyssia wants to go home. The reader enters the fray.

Let me be straight with you: I did not enjoy ODY-C. I loved the art. I admire the attempt. But the story itself left me cold, cold, cold.

In the normal course of things, I’d decline to write about a book that didn’t work for me, but in this case I want to unpack my response. I do honestly admire the scope of Fraction and Ward’s work, and I strongly suspect the comic will be absolutely the best thing ever in the right reader’s hands.

I’m not that reader, but you might be. Read on to find out.

Fraction’s script is as inventive as anything he’s ever done, but it also relies on mythic scope and engenders a certain amount of distance between reader and character. The gods are the only characters who ever actually speak. Everyone else’s dialogue comes to us through third person narration. The narrator tells us Odyssia said this and Lesser Girl Pem said that and Sebex Ero contributed this nugget. Each dialogue box is colour-coded so it’s immediately obvious who’s speaking, even without word bubbles to connect character to text; a creative and daring break from the norm, but one that encourages readers of my sort to view the story as something to evaluate rather than something to connect with. We don’t witness Odyssia saying this or that. We’re told she said this or that. It’s a slight remove, but one that made all the difference to me.

This structure enhances one’s impression of ODY-C as an epic poem in which art plays as large a role as language. It’s not meant to be easily approachable. You’re supposed to slow the hell down and pay attention to the text (which is in dactylic hexameter; something I had to look up) without worrying about whether you connect with Odyssia et al. The unusual, complicated presentation is the whole point. It fosters greater engagement with the story on a structural and allusive level, if not an emotional one.

I’m sure this is terribly exciting if you like epic poetry. I… do not, as a general rule. Yes, I’ve read THE ODYSSEY, and yes, I loved it, but it took me about a million tries to get through it because I couldn’t find a translation that jived with my fictional sensibilities. (Robert Fitzgerald’s finally did the trick.) I’m not at all a fan of post-Homeric epic poetry. With a very few exceptions, it actively bores me.

That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s the truth. I prefer my poetry short enough that I can reread it two or three times in a single sitting. Anything longer doesn’t worm itself into my life to a great enough extent to justify the time I spend with it.

This personal preference heavily influenced my response to ODY-C. I’m a character-oriented reader with a longstanding dislike of epic poetry. Fraction and Ward’s target audience is people who appreciate epic poetry and value concepts over, or at least on an equal footing with, characters, not to mention readers who enjoy picking through a complicated text in search of deeper meaning.

Sometimes I’m one of those people, but I cannot do that sort of work unless I feel a connection to either the characters or the language. That’s what it’s always gonna boil down to for me. Give me a story I can delight in on some level, or allow me to bow out.

You may be able to delight in ODY-C. I want to emphasize that again. It wasn’t for me, but it might be for you. That’s the whole reason I decided to write about it instead of quitting with a brief nod during Murchie Plus Books. I require specific things from my fiction, and I recognize that not every reader feels the same way. ODY-C’s charms may be right up your alley.

Christian Ward’s remarkable art certainly ranks among the book’s high points. This is trippy, psychadelic, rule-bending, mind-blowing, exquisitely-coloured work. Ward never cuts corners. Each panel is detailed and evocative, and his character designs make so much sense. The non-god people are all elegant and grounded, with just enough malleability to them that they feel divorced from the reader’s everyday life. (If the spaceships and wormhole things weren’t enough to foster that effect.) In contrast, the gods are forever in flux, impossible to truly pin down. It’s gorgeous and glorious and I was quite happy to stare at it for 140 pages.

And, as I said above, I truly do admire Matt Fraction and Christian Ward for doing this, even though it wasn’t my thing. These dudes have guts, and the chops to go with ‘em. I’m not familiar with Ward’s previous work, but I’ve watched Fraction do plenty of stuff that twists the comics medium while still fitting fairly well into what the average reader expects of the form. Now he’s at the point in his career where he can throw all that out the window and experiment. He can pitch a book in dactylic hexameter and have it accepted. He can get it on the market, and he can convince people to try it based on his name alone, and he can use it to expand our idea of what comics can be. I admire that very much.

For every reader like me, who decides the work she’d have to put into the comic isn’t worth what she’ll get out of it, there’s someone who’ll absolutely delight in it; who’ll find the narration-dialogue engrossing rather than distancing; who’ll freak the fuck out over the sheer scope of it all, and who’ll spend hours extracting meanings both objective and subjective from the text.

I didn’t enjoy it myself, but I’m glad it exists for others to wonder at.

Those others are liable to be readers who are primarily interested in structure, and in exploring the length and breadth of what comics can do. A character-oriented reader like myself, though, is less likely to take much away from it unless she’s also deeply interested in epic poetry, or is capable of accepting the art as a separate entity from the text.

  1. Everyone seems to live for at least a few centuries, so I’m assuming they’re all either nonhuman or post-human.


  1. I adore epic poetry, and as you know, this didn't work for me either -- for a lot of the same reasons you mention. The actual Odyssey already has that chilly, removed, fated quality to it; we didn't need that again. I wanted Matt Fraction to do something new and different with the story, and -- I know it sounds crazy to say this after you read the premise of the book -- I don't think he succeeds in that at ALL.

    1. I don't remember finding the Odyssey chilly and removed, though it's admittedly been a while since I read it. The Iliad did give me a few problems, connection-wise, so I've never finished it.

  2. What you and Jenny said. Also, well done on writing such an interesting and even-handed review.

    1. This is one of those peculiar cases where I didn't enjoy the book itself, but I very much enjoyed mulling it over and discussing it with people. Thanks for chatting about it with me!